The war on traffic

LTNs: as contentious as Brexit?

In cities across Britain, hundreds of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods were introduced last year – and they’re causing an almighty row


Why was this policy introduced?

They were a product of the pandemic. In May, the Government unveiled a £250m “emergency active travel fund” to encourage walking and cycling: it aimed to reduce overcrowding on public transport after the first lockdown, and to stop worried commuters taking to their cars in large numbers. Councils in cities across the UK were given funding to introduce “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” (LTNs) in which through traffic or “rat-running” in residential streets would be stopped by installing bollards or wooden planters. Within months, almost 250 LTNs were in place in cities including Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. In London, Transport for London (TfL) was required to institute LTNs as a condition of its £1.6bn bailout, and more than 70 LTNs were launched between March and September.

What are the aims of LTNs?

LTNs aren’t just aimed at relieving pressure on public transport; they’re also designed to help cut emissions and tackle health problems such as respiratory issues, heart disease and obesity; and to make streets safer for children. There are 38.8 million licensed vehicles in Britain, up from about 22 million in 1990. Road traffic increased from 255 billion miles travelled in 1990 to 328 billion in 2018; in 2019, transport was responsible for a third of all UK carbon emissions. This, of course, affects air quality: in London, where almost a third of all car journeys made by residents are under 1.25 miles, air pollution kills up to 9,500 people each year. The growth of online deliveries and the use of satnavs, meanwhile, has driven more and more cars onto side roads; traffic on London’s minor roads has risen 72% in the past decade.

Have LTNs had a positive impact?

Studies have shown that where such schemes are introduced, people walk and cycle more, air quality improves, and people have a more positive perception of their local area. It’s early days for Britain’s LTNs, but TfL says its surveys already show “consistent improvements” in London. Schemes to cut traffic and increase cycling have yielded results elsewhere: the London Borough of Waltham Forest launched its own version of LTNs in 2013 (see box), and it was expected to see nitrogen dioxide levels fall by up to 25% by this year. The health benefits of LTNs are thought to be so substantial that one London hospital trust, Guy’s and St Thomas’s, has given £250,000 to Southwark Council to help fund them.

Does everyone welcome them?

Absolutely not. The mere mention of the letters LTN is “guaranteed to make suburban MPs shudder”, says Rupa Huq, the MP for Ealing in London. The schemes have been met with fierce opposition almost everywhere they’ve been introduced. People with no prior involvement in local politics have joined protests against them, while local social media groups are awash with complaints about them. Planters blocking off roads have been vandalised; bollards have been stolen. In Hackney, a councillor received a death threat because of his support of LTNs. “The issue has been worse than Brexit around here in terms of the angst and animosity,” says Richard Aldwinckle of One Dulwich, a group opposing LTNs in south London.

What are the criticisms?

Convenience, for one: drivers complain that previously short trips now take much longer as they are forced to make lengthy detours or risk fines. Others say that people with disabilities have been disproportionately affected because they rely on cars or taxis, and that the ability of emergency services to reach some areas has been compromised. Many businesses, meanwhile, say they have been affected because customers can’t park conveniently nearby, further denting pandemic-hit profits. LTNs have tended to make main roads busier, and some critics say that this promotes a form of “green gentrification”: leafy residential streets benefit, while poorer main roads suffer (and cyclists, it is pointed out, are disproportionately white, male and well-off). And there’s one recurring theme: those opposed to the schemes complain that they were introduced on an emergency basis, with little consultation.

Are those criticisms valid?

In some cases, yes. Many journey times have undoubtedly been lengthened (the point of LTNs is, after all, to “nudge” people into using their cars less by making it less convenient to do so). Emergency services can be affected by this too; some are working with councils to encourage them to avoid physical barriers such as planters in favour of cameras. There have also been some instances of disabled residents missing hospital appointments or facing large fines as a result of the scheme. But claims that LTNs have a negative impact on businesses are more questionable; there is actually evidence that more people walking and cycling leads to greater spending and more local retail space being filled. Effects vary from scheme to scheme, but an impact study of Waltham Forest’s found that though it increased traffic on main roads in the short term, in the long term it fell, as people’s habits changed.

Will the schemes survive?

Because of their unpopularity, more than one in four councils with LTNs have already scrapped or reduced them, according to The Sunday Telegraph; ministers have threatened to withdraw cash from councils “abusing” the funding. Although introduced rapidly, the schemes must be subject to consultation if they are to be made permanent. LTNs pose a knotty problem for politicians, in that polls suggest widespread support for them: a YouGov poll in London found that three times as many had positive views as had negative views of them. Yet the opposing minority – often those who live on or near closed roads – is vociferous and furious. The case for cutting car use is overwhelming, but such policies need to bring those affected with them.